The Notre Dame Fighting Irish lost several prominent contributors to an offense that was good enough to play in the BCS National Championship Game a season ago. However, the leadership and experience of quarterback Tommy Rees will keep the unit on course for another stellar year in 2013.
Rees split time with Everett Golson before the younger signal-caller seized the job outright in the midst of the 2012 campaign, only to be suspended from the university for what he deemed, "poor academic judgment."
Now the onus is on Rees to maintain the Irish's momentum going from last year's surprising, raging success, and despite the lack of a stronger arm and the mobility Golson possessed, he has the tools to do just that.
Getting blown out with the national title on the line to the Alabama Crimson Tide was obviously not what head coach Brian Kelly had in mind, but it was still an achievement for the Irish to get to that juncture in and of itself.
It likely wouldn't have happened without some heroics by Rees along the way, either.
At times, he was called on by Kelly to close out games when it appeared Golson wasn't up to the task, and Rees delivered.
In fourth-quarter rallies over Purdue, Michigan and Stanford, Rees not only proved his ability to play at a high level when it mattered most, but also fortified his leadership capabilities after a tumultuous career prior to then.
On the road against Oklahoma, the only pass Rees threw was an 11-yard completion to Tyler Eifert on third down, which helped the Irish maintain a four-point lead late in the game.
When Notre Dame had become somewhat of a laughingstock in recent years—in light of the program's storied tradition—Rees served as a symbol of what had gone wrong, accounting for 19 turnovers in the 2011 season.
The relegation to backup duties apparently lit a fire under Rees to take every facet of his game up a notch, whether it be in improving his intangibles or making smarter decisions with the football.
It's definitely not an easy schedule at the outset for the No. 11 Irish, with road contests at Michigan and Purdue in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively.
But Rees has the luxury of a stellar running game to lean on that should serve as the primary focus of the offensive attack, allowing him to be more of a manager on the gridiron.
George Atkinson III boasts a combination of sprinter's speed and size at 215 pounds that should allow him to be a force between the tackles and on the perimeter. He averaged a whopping 7.1 yards per carry in 2012 and matched leading rusher Theo Riddick for second on the team with five touchdowns.
As Rees mentions in the video above, Amir Carlisle has flashed coming off of an injury and should contribute prominently to a three-pronged running game, with all-purpose RB Cam McDaniel also garnering praise from Kelly, per NBC Sports' Keith Arnold.
Jim Johnston of WNDU.com reports that Rees' mobility has improved and that he's been able to turn negative plays into positive ones with his feet—something he hasn't done in the past.
Coach Kelly has witnessed noticeable overall improvement:
Also in Johnston's report are comments from junior receiver DaVaris Daniels, who said Rees' confidence is "through the roof."
That sounds like the makings of a leader who has put his mistakes as a full-time starter the first time around behind him and is seeking to build off the positivity generated by his clutch play that assisted the Irish to an undefeated regular season.
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